Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

OWA Knows Best - Theater 2009

January 11, 2010

Stephen Mangan and Amanda Root in The Norman Conquests
Photo: Joan Marcus 2009

Sometimes silence is golden. The following is the Out West Arts companion list of 2009’s top theater events from where I was sitting. It was a banner year for excellent plays and of the 87 theater events I saw, these were my favorites.

1. The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckbourn. Circle in the Square Theater, New York. 4/09. That Ayckbourn’s three interlocking plays under the eye of Matthew Warchus can turn 70s British sex comedy into something profound about modern life is almost as stupefying as the quality of the ensemble cast that pulls this off. Riotously funny and unexpectedly moving.

The cast of Arcadia

2. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. Duke of York's Theater, London. 6/09. A very, very close second for number 1. A modern masterpiece given a loving and detailed performance that catches the play's humor and intellectual rigor. This is English theater that is intellectual in the best sense of the word that doesn't need to be stood on its head to get it's point across. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Arian Moayed (below) and Hrach Titizian in Bengal Tiger
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2009

3. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph. Kirk Douglas Theater, Los Angeles. 5/09. The first great American play about the Iraq war. Wildly ambitious with its blend of comedy and magical realism. The best news is that it will return to the larger Mark Taper Forum in spring 2010. Don't miss your next chance to see it.

4. The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom by Enda Walsh. The Druid Theater Company on tour at UCLA, Los Angeles. 11/09 and 12/09. Walsh takes a Pinteresque approach in these companion plays that take on everything from Irish culture to sexual politics. Fierce, provocative and swiftly psychological works that we were lucky enough to see close together here in L.A. thanks to David Sefton and UCLA Live.

The Big Art Group perform SOS
Photo: Dan Hansell/Big Art Group 2009

5. SOS from Caden Manson and The Big Art Group at REDCAT, Los Angeles. 4/09. Contemporary media culture taken on at Blitzkrieg speed. Funny and highly energetic in a way that demands not to be ignored.

A scene from Castellucci's Purgatorio

6. Purgatorio from Romeo Castellucci and Societas Ragaello Cedillo. UCLA, Los Angeles. 10/09. Alternately lyrical and difficult to watch, this offering from the UCLA Live International Theater Festival was so complex that it left the audience adrift in a sea of visual art and ideas that constantly morphed and changed. That's not a bad feeling.

7. Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller. Broadhurst Theater, New York. 5/09. Two amazing performances from Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter made this dark, and sparse Donmar Warehouse Production radiate heat.

Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher in Maybe Forever

8. Maybe Forever by Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher. REDCAT, Los Angeles. 9/09. This is cheating a bit in that it's a dance piece and it did involve some music in the form of songs performed by the composer Niko Hafkenscheid. It was the best dance piece I saw all year with its sublime movement often in near darkness. Expatriate choreographer Stewart returned with a beautiful piece on intimacy and loneliness with its own indie logic.

9. Monsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati by
Jorge Kuri. Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes at REDCAT, Los Angeles, 1/09. The name says it all in this work that takes a DIY aesthetic to the subject at hand complete with live horses, satyrs, and opera singers.

Tristan Sturrock and Naomi Frederick in Brief Encounter

10. Brief Encounter from Noel Coward and the Kneehigh Theater Company. St. Ann’s Warehouse, New York, 12/09. So heartfelt and campy that you instantly fall in love. How can you deny a company that serves cucumber sandwiches after the show?

Honorable Mention: Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms with Brian Dennehy and George S Kaufman's Animal Crackers both at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Geoffrey Rush in Ionesco's Exit the King on Boradway. Caryl Churchill's A Number and Adam Bock's The Receptionist both at the Odyssey Theater in L.A. The touring production of Tracy Letts's August: Osage County with Estelle Parsons at the Ahmanson Theater. T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. from Pasolini by way of TR Warszawa at UCLA. And lest we forget, Culture Clash's hysterical take on Aristophanes' Peace at the Getty Villa.

Biggest Disappointment: The musical adaptation of The Addams Family in its tryout run in Chicago. A show so bad I didn't even have the heart to write about it at the time I saw it. It will take a miracle to make it watchable by the time it reaches New York. But who knows what surprises 2010 will hold?

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